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A trip to the world’s driest and coldest continent is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as Jaideep Mukerji finds out
A travel destination with no classy hotels, no resorts, no theme parks, no shopping malls, not one sandy beach; a place where no visitors are permitted to spend a night. Antarctica, the world’s fifth largest continent, is 99.7% covered with ice permanently. It’s the world’s driest, coldest and windiest continent, and yet receives around 33,000 visitors annually, of whom fewer than 19,000 actually set foot on the continent every year. These are people looking for a ‘different’ travel experience; an experience that most will try only once in their lifetime. It’s certainly not inexpensive and involves long hours of travelling. But, at the end, you will have memories and photographs that are beyond compare.
Antarctica! Few, if any, Indian companies would be able to help you plan a trip to a destination that is as distant and remote. Months of research, reading and exploring travel alternatives convinced me to opt out of the luxury cruise option. Yes, there are some cruise companies that offer a limited number of sailings to the polar regions every year, but the size of the ship and the style of operation restrict you to seeing the polar continents from a distance without actually setting foot on land.
My choice was one of the smaller specialist expedition-style cruise companies that operate small, ice-strengthened ships, mostly converted Russian research vessels. The big advantage is that one is not shielded and protected from the elements by the artificial luxury of a giant cruise ship; sailing on these smaller expedition ships, one experiences the wild ferocity of crossing the heaving waters of the Drake Passage as well as the eerie silence while gliding over the frozen waters in the Errera Channel and Paradise Bay.
Among the four or five small expedition-ship companies that offer polar tours, Oceanwide Expeditions is perhaps the best known. The Dutch company operates its own mid-size ship called the Plancius and, depending on the rush, it can also arrange additional expeditions using Russian research ships. Tours to the southern polar region set out from Ushuaia, the southern-most city in the world, at the tip of South America. This Argentinean city on the shores of the Beagle Channel is visited by tens of thousands of travellers every summer, from November to March. It has comfortable hotels, an interesting museum that is housed in what was once a jail, and several other interesting places that one can visit in a two-hour drive. Ushuaia is a three-hour flight from the capital Buenos Aires. It’s a short taxi-ride from the little airport to the port. A quick customs and passport check and I am already walking down the windy jetty towards Professor Multanovskiy, the 48-passenger polar expedition ship of Oceanwide Expeditions.
At the stroke of 5pm, with a blast of the ship’s horn, we set off from Ushuaia and headed east along the Beagle Channel that separates Argentina from Chile.
Immediately, we were briefed about the ship and its facilities and underwent the compulsory and comprehensive safety and survival drill, including actually evacuating to the life rafts and experiencing the cramped survival conditions first hand. That evening, I met most of my 45 or so fellow-passengers, many of them from the US and the rest from a dozen or more other countries. There was a journalist from Guatemala, a couple of Japanese youngsters, a pleasant elderly German doctor and couples from the UK, Spain and Canada. Apart from the ship’s Russian navigation crew, we were introduced to Troels, the Danish expedition leader, Daniella, our Argentinean housekeeping manager, Hermann, the Austrian head chef, and Anjali, our guide and ship-board lecturer from New Zealand.
Why go there: Antarctica is likely to remain a specialised and niche destination offered by a small number of experienced tour operators focusing on expedition-style journeys, for people wanting to get away from the crowds, to unique places of immense natural beauty.
Getting there: Several airlines fly to Buenos Aires, (the Argentine capital) via Europe or the US. From Buenos Aires, you can book your flight online, to and from Ushuaia, on the website of Aerolineas Argentinas or LAN Argentina, both reliable carriers.
Visas: Indian citizens require an Argentinean visa.
Where to stay: Hotel accommodation in Buenos Aires and in Ushuaia can be booked easily on any major hotel portal or through any reliable travel agent. While Buenos Aires has a wide range of hotels to suit every budget, the choice in Ushuaia is limited to 3- and 4-star hotels. Prices during the southern summer season (November to March) may range from $120 to $150 a room per night.
Weather: Antarctica voyages operate only during November-March (when it is spring and summer in the southern hemisphere). Temperatures range from a comfortable 15ºC-18ºC in Ushuaia to a chilly 1ºC-3ºC in Antarctica. Ships are comfortably heated.
After an excellent inaugural dinner, we gathered in the lounge and library to exchange introductions and listen to the nightly briefing on the planned activities for the following day. Over the next two days, as we sailed south across the Drake Passage, we listened to shipboard lectures on the early Antarctica explorations by Amundsen and Scott nearly a century ago, the continent’s geology, wildlife and climate.
Early morning of the third day, as we awoke and headed down to the dining lounge for breakfast, the rolling of the ship and the sound of things moving about that we had become used to was replaced by an eerie silence. As I looked out, I saw the Professor Multanovskiy gliding slowly between giant icebergs. We dashed to get our cameras and jackets and rush back to the decks to capture our first pictures of the awe-inspiring ice-scape that was revealing itself through a shallow sea mist. The sight of these ice structures in their fantastic shapes and sizes, some shimmering a brilliant white in the morning light, others shining an iridescent blue, was overpowering and humbling.
The ship anchored in Petrel Cove, off snow-capped Dundee Island. Within minutes, the zodiac power boats were lowered, the gangway was taken down and the first team was heading down to the gravel and black volcanic sand coast. As we stepped ashore on our first outing on Antarctica, we were greeted by hundreds of barking fur seals, crowded on the beach.
The highlight of our excursion on Dundee Island was a walk on the permanent ice cap that covers nearly the entire island. As we slowly ascended the dome-shaped ice sheet, we turned and saw the Professor Multanovskiy dwarfed by towering cliffs of ice in the distant bay.
Our exploration of the Antarctica Peninsula and sub-Antarctica South Shetland Islands over the next five days revealed new wonders. On crescent-shaped Deception Island, which is actually the rim of an old volcano that collapsed into the sea, we visited Whalers Bay and the remains of a whaling station where, once, millions of whales were slaughtered for precious whale oil in the days before petroleum.
On King George Island, we were greeted by Gentoo penguins. The Fildes Peninsula on King George Island has several scientific research stations. We walked past the Chinese Great Wall Station to the colonies of Chinstrap penguins where numerous elephant seals were lolling on the shore. The Russian Bellingshausen Station also has the only church on Antarctica. Trinity Church is perched on a lovely site overlooking Ardley Cove surrounded by an ice sheet. At the Chilean Eduardo Frei Research Station our passports were stamped with an ‘official’ Antarctica stamp, formally recording our presence on the southern continent.
Heading further south, we touched Brown Bluff, at the very tip of the Antarctic continent on a lovely evening. The flat sea mirrored the icebergs and the calm of the moment was only broken by playful fur seals that we had to dodge in a hurry. Gentoo penguins with their orange beaks nested in the hundreds on the nearby slopes. We also saw, for the first time, the smaller and elegant Adelie penguins. As we wove our way back to our ship on the zodiacs, the icy continent was bathed in a gentle shade of rose pink in the fading evening light.
Sailing down the western side of Antarctica peninsula, along a stretch known as Graham Land, we encountered ‘normal’ polar weather with a rising wind, a choppy sea, dark clouds and snow showers. As we landed on Cuverville Island, young and adult Gentoos stared curiously at us; some of the chicks in fluffed down feathers looked very cute.
The storm clouds parted, letting in rays of evening sunshine, as we sailed gently through the freezing waters of the Errera Channel to Paradise Bay and Neko Harbour, the southernmost point on our journey. The stunning walls of blue ice towering high, just a few metres away from the ship, the roar of ice breaking from ice cliffs and crashing into the half-frozen sea some distance away, left us speechless.
Over the three-day voyage north, across the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia, we had more time to spend with fellow-travellers and share thoughts about the trip that will be the highlight of our travels in this lifetime.